Sunday, January 14, 2018

2 Timothy 1 :1-7 "Fearless Service"

This is, as far as we know, Paul's last letter. He writes it from prison in Rome around AD 67/68. He is  awaiting execution, and it is  clear that  his thoughts in this letter are  not  rooted in  his  imminent  death, but  in the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus (1:1).

The letter is addressed to Timothy, whom he calls “my beloved child” (1:2;2:1). He is not his biological child of course, but his son in the faith. He is Timothy’s father in the gospel. (1 Cor. 4:15).  Timothy is a pastor of the congregation in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3), and as I  said to you in my introductory words when I preached through 1 Timothy in 2016:
“…these pastoral  epistles were  written by Paul to these younger colleagues in the ministry in order to provide pastoral   help and counsel for the many and varied situations  which these younger  men and pastors  encountered  in their respective  situations. The pastoral epistles  address a  number  of  timeless issues  that churches  experience, and it is therefore of great  value for  us to  learn  from  the wisdom  of  the  God inspired Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16,17) and  so to avoid the  common pitfalls and traps  into which so many pastors  and  churches  throughout the ages  have fallen…” [1]

One of the great privileges of being older in the faith is that we have seen God at work in so many different ways. We have seen and experienced and tasted  God’s faithfulness  in so many ways, and the knowledge and experience of  this helps us to encourage those that are younger in the faith.  
At the beginning  of this year of our Lord,  2018 I want to speak to you about  ‘Fearless Service’, and I am of course referring to fearless service  in the service of   God, and my text is found in verse 7“God gave us a spirit not of fear  but of power  and love and self- control.”  

What I want to do is to look at the man, Paul who made this statement, and I want to look at the man Timothy, to whom he made this statement,  and finally I want  us to appropriate  these Scriptures to ourselves,as we think about  serving our Lord without fear in 2018.  

1.     Paul : Our model of fearless  service 

In doing so I must not tempt you to think of Paul as a perfect man. Paul does not claim perfection (Phil. 3:12), and he confesses  his own weakness readily (2 Cor. 12:9). But   Paul is an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God (1:1a) …. Paul is not claiming to be a self -made man. He is a God -made, God- called, God - equipped man! He is an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus (1:1b). The fact of the matter is  that  Jesus took hold of Paul according to the story told in Acts 9, and this religious  man, this well trained Pharisee  was born again  and he  became a great, life giving  tool,  for the conversion and sanctification  of many in the hand of  God. And many are still born again, and many are still being sanctified when they read the inspired words of Paul in our own day. He was a man, but he was a man in the hand of God, and his grace to him was not in vain. It was effective (1 Cor. 15:10).  Paul’s amazing biography is found in his second letter to the Corinthians. There we read (e.g. 2 Cor.11:16-28) how he persevered in fearless service, under many trying circumstances. He feared man little. He feared his circumstances little, although they were painful. He feared God more.  And he looked forward to his eternal reward, which the death that he was facing could not take from him, because he understood the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus.

The Christian life is a life  that  is undergirded by God’s grace, mercy and peace (1:2).  These are the spiritual blessings that God has given to all who trust in Jesus Christ, and these make us able to do fearless service in this world. God’s grace is His unconditional favour to those who believe, and his grace is always sufficient for every situation (2 Cor. 12:9). God’s mercy is His love for His undeserving people, and Paul speaks about that in 1 Timothy 1:13-16. God’s peace  is   the accompanying  sense of well-being  (Shalom), when we know  that God is in charge of our situation. The peace of God which passes all understanding guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7).  This enables Paul to be fearless, not because he is macho, but because he knows himself to be in the hand of God.

Now, to take this further, we must note that this apostle, who is so very secure in the knowledge   and the experience of His Saviour,   is also a man of prayer (1:3). Fearless men and women know about prayer, and they practise habitual prayer.  As we prepare to learn about Timothy, we note that Paul constantly remembers Timothy in His prayers.  I would like to say something about prayer in this regard.  Prayer is the joy of those who know that apart from God they can do nothing. I have studied Paul’s epistles over and over and I see that he is a man of prayer. He has understood that  his effective work as an apostle  is by the grace and mercy of God alone.  

Prayer then is the mark of a courageous, fearless Christian, and it is not surprising for it portrays confidence in God. Your prayer life, rooted in your knowledge of the Word of God (or the absence of it),  will tell you everything you are before God, and if you are not much with God in prayer, then you are your own man or woman, and if this is so, you will be easily overtaken by  the fear of man. 
Paul was praying for Timothy.  Paul believed in the help which we would receive from the  prayers of others (2 Cor.  1:10,11) But apart from that it is wonderful to know that godly people are praying for you, and we in the church must indeed learn to  diligently pray for one another (Eph. 6:18). And it is not just about repeating a prayer list.  Paul prayed for Timothy with real love and affection and longing.  

"I thank I remember you.”  Again, note that Paul is not fixated on his own fear as he is in prison, awaiting death. Instead,  Paul  exhibits a life  of  thankfulness for the life of others.  He was  thinking about others.  

2.     Timothy : Learning  to become fearless in Service:

1:4 “I am reminded  of  your sincere faith,  a faith  that dwelt first  in your grandmother Lois, and your mother Eunice, and now,  I am sure, dwells in you as well.” Timothy had a Jewish mother and a grandmother who had become believers in the Lord Jesus.  His father, we learn in Acts 16:1 was a Greek pagan man.  His conversion is never mentioned. These godly women and Timothy were probably all converted under Paul’s evangelistic ministry. 

The work of God in the soul of man is always work in progress. Salvation is a dynamic concept. And so conversion, repentance, faith must be followed by  sanctification , and  it is here  that we find that God has  much work to do in Timothy.  

You see it in 1:6: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God...”. Timothy has been called to shepherd the flock of God in Ephesus. But he is a man like all of us. At times we get slack, or hold back, being fearful of making  a commitment,  and at times  we need  someone to tell us to get going and  use that which God has put into us  by way of a spiritual gift. 

Spiritual gifts  are for  spiritual service,  and these spiritual gifts  are given to us by God[2] . They do not operate automatically. We must use that gift and practise to use it.  We must fan it into flame and keep it going. In that sense our spiritual gifts are like natural gifts. If you have an athletic gift, you will not become a great athlete unless you train diligently.  Someone may have a natural musical ability, but  they need to  practise and develop and stir up that gift. Marcelle’s brother who sang in the Drakensberg  Boys choir, and was a soloist in his day, portrayed a clear musical talent and a singing  gift at a very young age. But he was trained at that school, and he was taught to perform and use his gift. You have got to cultivate those gifts. So, why is it  that  we do not  want to use our spiritual gifts to the glory of God and for the benefit of the church? 

1:7 gives us an indication. Following his statement on the spiritual gift, Paul says to Timothy,  “God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.”  Apparently, Timothy was by nature somewhat timid. He was inclined to hold back, perhaps because he was a nervous person. He had stomach problems and other ailments (1 Tim 5:23). Stomach problems are often associated with nervous conditions. He was young and he was leading a church, and as you can imagine, that was not easy. Paul had to encourage  him frequently in that regard (1 Tim 4:13 , and again  this text  speaks of the spiritual gift). Timothy was tempted to hold back, because  of his  temperament and  bodily ailments, but  Paul reminds him : ‘Timothy, we haven't been given a spirit of fear (or timidity), but a spirit of power and of love, and of  self- control (discipline)...’. The fact is that God has called Timothy  into service, despite his temperamental disadvantages and despite his bodily weaknesses.

God has equipped him, and his   temperament and  bodily ailments  are  no hindrance, and thus I remind  you that our competency  and confidence in ministry  is never  in ourselves, but in the God who calls and equips us. We are fearless in Christian ministry, not because we have  a natural ability to be macho, but we know Who stands behind us, and because  we know Who has equipped us with everything good to do His will.  


From verses 1&2 we learn that Christians draw strength in their trials because of their knowledge of God's providence, His will, and His promises. Every Christian is able to serve God, not with self-confidence, but with confidence in God, and in His promises. Grace, mercy and peace are foundational gifts and blessings to every believer, and Paul's words, are a comfort if we will listen.  If we attempt to minister on God’s behalf in our own strength, we will be broken, and we will either live in denial or in bitterness. Paul could live and minister in power and love and  self- control  because he believed...he knew God's will and God's promise.

In v.  3 we learn that prayer is the hallmark of a person that trusts not themselves but God. It becomes one of the hallmarks  that undergird  fearless  service. Paul knows whom he has believed (see 1:12). 

And so he is freed from the curse of human fear and what man can do to him. Therefore he is able to focus on others. In this instance he is thinking about Timothy and He is thanking God for the life of Timothy. This mind-set is not found much in our culture.  We tend to think  too much of  ‘what I need’. We think too much  of  - ‘Is God meeting my needs? Is the church meeting my needs?’  For Paul this is  the last thing on his mind. Because he is God's man  he is able to  let God take care of him , and this gives him time and space to think of others who are not there yet.   This, I say  is counter-cultural thinking,   and this is what God calls us to do and to  be- to be not like the world.

This radical God centeredness is what leads to fearless service. Look at verse 7 again.  Christians serve with a power and strength that cares for others wisely – with real power, real love and real self- control.  This, I submit to you is profound thinking, and may this help you to trust God and to really have a heart for fearless service in 2018 . Amen

[1]  See my sermon on  1 Timothy   1:1-2 , entitled  “  A Letter  from Paul to Timothy  for the  Church in all Ages”, dated    03/04/2016
[2] See 1 Corinthians 12

Monday, December 18, 2017

Genesis 22 :1-24 - “The Sacrifice of the Son of Promise “

Vv. 1-2 :  God’s command to Abraham
Vv. 3-14 :  Abrahams obedience
Vv. 15- 19 :  God’s covenant promises reaffirmed
Vv. 20-24 :  An important footnote  concerning  Isaac’s future wife, Rebekah. 

This recorded piece of sacred Scripture must surely rank as one of the supreme tests[1] and acts of faith in the Bible. But let’s face it - as much as we would admire the faith of Abraham, so as much   many would find themselves perplexed by  the nature of what God requires here of Abraham.  Is it possible that God could require such a thing? The God who said, ”You shall not murder?" (Gen. 9:5,6 ; Ex. 20:13).  

I have reminded you so often from this pulpit that we need to learn to see further than the end of our noses. We need to learn to read Bible texts, such as this one, in the light of the whole Bible, and particularly in the light of the full revelation of the NT Scriptures, otherwise we will always be like children, swayed by mere appearances and swayed by mere emotions of the moment.  What strikes me so very often about Bible critics and cynics is that they take a verse such as this and say, “Oh, really, so this is your loving God who commands a father to kill his son?”  So, they take verse 2   and think themselves justified to pull apart the whole of Christianity on the basis of this verse and text, without understanding the context of the entire Scriptures.   We need to learn that the weight of the entire Bible stands behind this text!  

By way of introduction I also wish to remind you again that all of the OT anticipates and foreshadows the Messiah- Jesus Christ, the Lord. We saw that last time in Genesis 21.  Isaac, the son of promise was born under miraculous circumstances and at the right time, determined by God. This child was never born according to man’s will and in man’s timing. And this child never ultimately belonged to Abraham and Sarah – just like your and my children don’t ultimately belong to us!  We receive these gifts  from God to be raised for the glory of God.   Now  with this thought in mind  we must  understand that Isaac was born to be an illustration of something  even greater that God would do later in the  history of the world.

Isaac in his birth, and in the act of being sacrificed by his father foreshadowed ultimately the birth and the death of the greater Son of Abraham, the Lord Jesus Christ. And so we need to see the logic of this passage ultimately in that light.  All this is so very big and breath-taking, and so I want to encourage you to  see this test of Abraham’s faith  in an  entirely positive  way and not through the eye  of  the superficial  modern  person  who cannot see the glory of God in the face of Christ  and who whose who would  simply cry , “child abuse!”

22: 1-2:  God’s command to Abraham

"After these things God tested Abraham…”.The fact that God tests His people should not be construed in a negative manner. There is a crucial difference between testing and tempting. Satan tempts people in order to make them fail. God tests His people to further sanctify and refine them.  In both, the Old and New Testaments the words translated “test” mean “to prove by trial”.  When God tests His children, His purpose is to prove that their faith is real.  James says that the testing of our faith develops perseverance, which leads to maturity in our walk with God (Jas. 1:3–4). James also goes on to say that testing is a blessing, because, when we have “stood the test” we will “receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (Jas. 1:12).  So ultimately testing comes from our heavenly Father who works all things together for good for those who love Him and who are called to be the children of God (Rom. 8:28).

In a sense God tested Abraham all his life. He tested him when he left his familiar home in Ur. He tested Abraham through a drought when he arrived in the Promised Land. He tested him in his relationship with Lot and by means of the happenings in Sodom and Gomorrah. He tested him by keeping him waiting for 25 years for a son to be born to him and Sarah.  God tested him causing Hagar and Ishmael to leave the home, because the sibling rivalry between Ishmael, the son of the flesh and Isaac the son of the promise   was threatening to destabilize Abraham once again. 
When Isaac was born   Abraham might have thought   that this would have been the end of all his trials, but it was not so! The greatest trial was yet to come.  We read, “After these things God tested Abraham…”.   To be sure, the nature of Abraham’s test of faith is a specific one, and you and I will never be asked to do this. But God may ask you to give up your son or daughter to His service in a very dangerous mission field. Be prepared!    But this specific request in 22:2, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering…”, is  at face value  a tough one.  Abraham knows what is at stake.  What would Sarah say if he came home to tell her that he had to sacrifice Isaac? But far more profound is the fact that if Isaac dies, the promise of Abraham’s seed and offspring cannot be established.   The Messiah, according  to promise,   could not be born! There is a lot at stake here.

22: 3-14 :  Abraham's obedience

V.3 “So Abraham rose early in the morning…and went to the place of which God had told him.”  The place to which he takes Isaac is of very deep significance. To miss this, is to miss everything.  Abraham is told to go to the land of Moriah to offer him there as a burnt offering.  And now for some perspective, as we take a look forward in history; In 1 Chronicles 21   David had sinned by calling for an unauthorized census of his people. It was a self -willed census, motivated by his pride. A terrible judgement from God followed as a result. 70 000 people died. It was on Mt. Moriah, the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite in Jerusalem that the angel of death was commanded by God to stop the divine wrath. David then bought this place from Ornan the Jebusite and here he made burnt offerings and peace offerings to God. (1 Chron. 21:26). This place would later become Israel’s house of worship, having been   built under the supervision of Solomon (2 Chron. 3:1). This place became Israel’s God appointed place of sacrifice and worship, and many, many sacrifices would be made there in the course of history.  And it was in this vicinity that the Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away our sin   was crucified on Mt Calvary, outside the gate. So, I trust that you see the significance of all this. An ordinary reading of this text, without investigation would have caused you to miss the point of this story!

So now, let us think again. Why does God call Abraham to make such an enormous sacrifice?  Two reasons:

(i)               On the one hand God designed this as the supreme test of Abraham's faith and trust in God. Has Abraham grown in his faith? Yes, he has!  And we know that Abraham does not fail this test.  

(ii)      But in a greater and more profound sense God was preparing the world for a future happening, and He caused it to be recorded in the Bible, to be seen by those that have eyes to see and ears to hear.  Here God, through this incident was foretelling   what He would do in the offering up of  a very real sacrifice  of His only Son  on the cross.   So  Abraham is taking his son where God took His Son, to that place where  He would  die for the sins of the world-  and there  was the  place  where the just wrath of God was stopped for all  who believe in  the substitutionary death of Christ  for themselves. 

Incidentally, nowhere else in the Bible will you find such a command, the sacrifice of a son, ever again. In fact, you will find it written in the law of God that all child sacrifice is expressly forbidden.

Now Abraham did not see everything as clearly as you and I can today with the benefit of the full revelation of God in Christ. But the important point is that Abraham believed in God and he  trusted God in this, and this is what is revealed in  vv. 3-14 !And it is revealed in the important   commentary on this passage in Hebrews 11:17-19. In his heart, difficult as it was, Abraham determined to trust God for this.  When Isaac asks that gut wrenching question in 22:7 , “My father…Where is the  lamb for the burnt offering?”, Abraham answers in v.8 , “God will provide for himself  the lamb for the burnt offering…”.   The commentary in the book of Hebrews tells us that Abraham expected God to resurrect Isaac from the dead. But that is not what happened. Instead, God provided a substitute! And here we have one of the great doctrines associated with the death of our Lord Jesus Christ–His substitutionary death  for  sinners.  His life for those that believe. The life of the Lamb of God for them that trust  Him to save them from the righteous wrath  of God.
And  as Abraham  prepares Isaac for sacrifice,  and as he  trusts God for the  outcome, the angel of the LORD intervenes (22: 11, 12). “Do not lay a hand on the boy.” The test is over. Abraham has passed it. He has stood the test. No further proof is necessary. Abraham’s faith is vindicated. It is real. He really , really has learned to trust God.  

22:13 tells us that Abraham lifted up his eyes  and  saw a ram caught  in a thicket by his horns.  This ram becomes the illustration of the great biblical doctrine of the substitutionary sacrifice, or atonement of Christ for those that believe in Him.  Without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of our sin.  The ram dies in my place, and my sin is atoned for.  But it is an unequal sacrifice. The ram is an animal. How on earth can an animal atone for the sin of a human being?  It can’t! By God’s forbearance, He allowed it to be so, but  the blood of bulls and goats cannot take sin away  (Hebr. 10:4). There is only one  who has been appointed in history to take away the sin of people!  Where on earth will such a man be found? Who will redeem a man, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Only the Son of Promise foreshadowed by Isaac can! 
And once a again the letter to the Hebrews and particularly the 10th chapter helps us to understand this. Do you see the profundity of Scripture? Does this not put a new awe for God into your hearts?Brothers and sisters, I exhort you then to put your trust in the Lord Jesus ! Abraham is our example. He trusted in God. And he was rewarded by God. He figuratively received his Son back from the dead. Isaac was given to Abraham a second time. He was Abraham’s son  by birth and now he is Abraham’s  so by redemption. And you too need  those two births - your physical birth and your spiritual birth . And you can be born again, by looking to Jesus. And you can live forever.  God the Father received his Son back from the dead. He  did allow His Son to see corruption in the grave. And you too who hope in Christ will rise in triumph with him.

And so in 22:15-18 God finally reaffirms and renews all the covenant  promises to Abraham and his descendants. They will become as numerous as the stars and sand on the seashore.  And in  22:19-24 God prepares  the next chapter of his covenant family  as He introduces us to  the family  of Rebekah, the future  covenant wife of Isaac, who will both be challenged  in a very similar way  in their walk of faith.

Trust God for your future in a new and radical way, based on what you have learned from the Holy Scriptures! Amen.

[1] Other tests in the Bible : e.g.  Ex. 16:4

Monday, December 11, 2017

Genesis 21 :1-21 “The Son of Promise “

As we come to Genesis 21 we shall find here a birth that we have been eagerly waiting for - Isaac the promised son of the covenant. 
His name means   “laughter”. And so it is. The birth of this boy brings new joy and laughter into the lives of this old couple. And it is by all accounts a miraculous birth.   All this   reminds us very much of the language of the time in which we find ourselves right now - the  Christmas season-the remembrance of the birth of Christ our Lord. The story of Isaac in a sense prefigures the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was long awaited, and born under mysterious circumstances, and who has brought laughter into the lives of many that have trusted in Him for their salvation.  
Indeed, the prefigurement of Christ is found in every book of the OT. [1] 

And yet, while it is a happy story, we shall also find that there are dark shadows lurking  in the background. This portion of Scripture that begins with laughter (21:1-7) ends  with a painful separation (21:8-21). We will learn lessons from both.

1.     21:1-7 :  God is faithful

"The Lord did to Sarah as He had promised."   Allow me to begin with a brief comment on the length of time it took for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham and Sarah.  The promise of an offspring  was first  made  in Chapter 12  when God called  Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees. At that time he was 75 (12:4) ,  and Sarah  was 65  years old.  It took 25 years to fulfill that promise (see 21:5)!  
How are we to understand this?  We remember that Abraham  (like Adam) was foolish to listen to his wife  when she suggested that he take  her servant Hagar and have  a son by proxy.  Ishmael (who shall occupy our thoughts  in the second half)  was born as a result.  He could of course not be the son of the promise. He was born as a result of  the scheming  of  Abraham and Sarah.   So, apart from this setback,  what reason could  we provide for this long waiting? 
The answer is simply, “we don’t know!” 
All we do  know is that God chose to work in a mysterious way His wonders to perform[2], as He so often does!  The mystery of Divine Sovereignty in the outworking of things is so well expressed in Isaiah  55:9 :  
"For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” 
Whatever we may think, the birth of Isaac was in the end a sovereign act of God, and, from God’s perspective it happened just at the right time. In that sense his birth was like that   of Jesus, who is the ultimate seed or offspring of Abraham, and who in God’s providence was born at just the right time (Gal. 4:4 ESV In the fullness of time). In both cases the sons of promise were conceived despite human reason and ability, and through the supernatural activity of God.

There may be a number of people here today who have been waiting on God to fulfill what they believe is a divine promise from the Word of God to them. What shall we say to this? 
  • Be absolutely clear that you do have a clear promise from the Bible, and not from your own fancies. 
  • Remember also that a Bibles text taken out of context is a pretext. 

God nowhere promises you in the Bible that you will have children if you had none so far.   
God nowhere promises you in the Bible that you will recover from every illness  and that you will be happy, wealthy and healthy  all the days of your life.  
God does not even promise that all the children of every believer will be converted.  

But  God  does  promise  that  He will “supply every need [3]of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.“ (Phil. 4:19
He promises that, for any true believer, all things will work together for the good. (Rom. 8:28).  
He has promised that nothing will separate us from His love in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:31-39). 
He has promised us that He will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Lk. 11:13). 
He has promised us that if He has begun a good work in us he will complete it (Phil. 1:6).  
He has promised to come again, and to take us to be where He is (Jn. 14:1-3). 

So we can wait, standing on these promises of God, but the precise times of the fulfillment of His promises are not made known to us. By faith we believe and by faith we cling to the promises of God. God, our Father knows the best timing!

In this case God had given a specific promise to Abraham and Sarah  and He was  going to fulfil it. God is faithful. And now Sarah is happy… very happy (21: 6,7). The Lord has turned her reproach into a blessing, and  Abraham  makes it known in a very vivid way. He  names  their  son , ‘Isaac’ … He laughs! (21:3)  

The application of this truth is exciting. Whatever  God promises, He will do. He will keep His word. And so we must learn to  trust Him. All of us have our own challenges in trusting the Lord, but Genesis 21  has been recorded  that you may know  that  God can be trusted. If we do not believe that God is faithful, then it will be very difficult for us to pray meaningfully.   
C.H. Spurgeon often encouraged his congregation to study the promises of God and to pray  according to the  promises  of God.   Rehearse the promises of God. Meditate on them. Remember them, and trust God for the outcome.  And do not shrink back (Hebr.  10:35-39). At long last we will see what we have hoped for, just as is the case here in 21: 1-7. 

2.  God's  common Grace is kind  to all mankind - but  His love  for His chosen people   is without equal. (21:8-21) 

In this portion of Scripture we find the doctrine of election applied.   It begins with an old   conflict in Abraham’s family life.  As Isaac, the son of promise   is weaned, Abraham  makes a great feast  for him,  and  we find that  Hagar  the mother of Ismael  laughs – but  not in a happy way , but in derision (21:9). At this point Sarah insists that Hagar leaves. Conflict is looming between the son of promise and the son born according to a sinful decision. 
Paul makes a great deal of this  story in his letter to the Galatians 4:21-31   where he  tells us that the two boys, Isaac and Ishmael and their two mothers, Sarah and Hagar are allegories of two covenants. Sarah bore the son of promise, corresponding to freedom, living by grace. Hagar  bore the son  born according to the flesh, bearing children for slavery, living by law. The plain fact concerning them is that they cannot co-exist!

To put that into gospel language: The son of promise, Isaac corresponds to those living under the gospel. A gospel man or woman relies on   that which Jesus Christ has done for them. If you have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ, and have been born again by a second miraculous birth, then you belong to the line of Isaac, the son of promise.  By contrast, Ismael, the son of the flesh, relies  on himself. He judges himself by  his own legal  standards of self-  righteousness. These two systems cannot co-exist, and so we  find  that  Hagar and Ishmael  must leave.  This is not ultimately just a family squabble.   It is about a profound  biblical truth, and in   Psalm 83: 4-6 we find  an outworking  of all this. Here the Psalmist  shows us that  the nations  which are related to Israel  are insanely  jealous of them and therefore they  conspire against Israel.  
The distinction between Isaac and Ishmael is much more profound than we are able to understand  at face value.  It is a theological issue, and it is revealed, as we have already  seen in Galatians  4:21 ff. 

There are  ultimately only two kingdoms in this world – and to these two kingdoms belong  either the  children born of the flesh  or  the  children born of the promise.    And in his letter to the Galatians  Paul was saying, don't be surprised if the synagogue (the sons of the flesh, the sons of the Sinaitic law and hence ultimately the sons of Ishmael)  is persecuting you. 
And ultimately we shall see that Ishmael persecuted Isaac.  
So  do not be surprised  if the unbelieving seed of Abraham is persecuting  true  Christians. That is Paul's argument and therefore  he  continues:  
"But what does the Scripture say? Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit  with the son of the free woman. So  brothers, we are not children of  the slave , but of the free woman." (Gal. 4:30,31)


Sarah has asked Abraham to  send  Hagar and Ishmael away, and clearly   this causes Abraham  to be distressed.  Abraham loved this boy deeply. In fact, when God came to Abraham to promise him the birth of Isaac, do you remember Abraham's response? Oh, that Ishmael might live before you. (17:18). 
God, in response is not unkind. He promises  Abraham  that He will care  for the boy and his mother, and to him are given promises (21:13,18). Here  God says to Abraham, “Because I love you, Abraham, I will make him a great nation. I will protect him.”

All this is of great significance and later in Romans  9,  Paul will use  this  story  again to  help us to understand   that not all descendants of Abraham  are  sons  of the promise :
and not all are the children of Abraham because they are his (physical ) offspring, but  through Isaac shall your offspring be named!” (cf. Rom. 9:6ff)

God is  much more merciful  to Ishmael than Sarah. And so often we think we are more merciful  than God. But  the truth is that God is much kinder.  Hagar and  Ishmael are not left destitute  by any means . And this is true of all the  unregenerate people of the world today. God is  kind and gracious  to those that deny him and curse him and  ignore him.  This will  obviously have an end, when Jesus returns as the Judge making a final separation between the two kinds of people. 

But this text makes it clear that  there are only  two kinds of people in this world  - and so it is  There are those that   love and follow the true  God who has made the heavens and the earth, and there are those that follow their own thoughts and their man made gods.  The two are not compatible.    So, God had to separate them, just  as he had separated  Abraham and Lot,  so  that his heart would be uncompromised and wholly God's. If God was going to establish His seed, it was going to be through Isaac alone.

Yes, it breaks  Abraham’s heart, but God must break His heart  to build his faith. There are so many lessons in this, but  for the sake of the table set before us, I say  only this: 
When you come to the Lord  Jesus (the ultimate Son of Promise) and you receive His righteousness , in the place of your own old insufficient self - righteousness, you become a son of Isaac, the  son the promise. And you will leave your old  ways of sin behind you. You will make a decisive  break  with ungodliness and continue with Jesus.  Amen !

[1] In Genesis, Jesus is the seed of the Woman.  In Exodus, He is the Passover Lamb. In Leviticus, He is the Priest, the Altar and the Lamb of Sacrifice. In Numbers, He is the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night. In Deuteronomy, Jesus is the Prophet like Moses.  In Joshua, Jesus is the captain of our salvation. In Judges, He is our Judge and Law-Giver.  In Ruth, He is our Kinsman and Redeemer. In 1 & 2 Samuel, He is our trusted  prophet. In Kings & Chronicles, He is our reigning King. In Ezra, He is the rebuilder of the broken-down walls of  our human lives.  In Nehemiah, Jesus is our Restorer. In Esther, He is our Advocate. In Job, Jesus is our Ever-Living Redeemer. In  the Psalms, He is our Shepherd. In Proverbs, He is our Wisdom. In Ecclesiastes, He is our hope of  the resurrection. In the Song of Songs, He is our loving Bridegroom. In Isaiah, Jesus is the suffering Servant. In Jeremiah , He is the righteous  who is wronged. In Lamentations, He is our weeping prophet. In Ezekiel, He is the one with the right to rule. In Daniel, Jesus is the fourth man in the fiery furnace. In Hosea, Jesus is the faithful husband.In Joel, He is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit and with  fire. In Amos, He is the restorer of Justice. In Obadiah, He is mighty to save. In Jonah, He is  the Word of God to the nations. In Micah,  He  is the feet of one who brings good news. In Nahum, Jesus is our stronghold in the day of trouble.
In Habakkuk, He is God  our Saviour. In Zephaniah, He is the King of Israel. In Haggai, He is the signet ring.
In Zechariah, He is our humble King riding on a colt. In Malachi, Jesus is the son of righteousness.
[2]  God works in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform-a hymn by William Cowper (1731-1800)
[3] Note : needs … not wants .  David was  able to testify in Psalm 37:25 : “ I have been young and now I am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or his children begging for bread.”

Monday, December 4, 2017

Acts 19:11-20 - ”Powerful versus Powerless Religion “

Vv. 11-12  The powerful,  God -ordained ministry of the apostle  Paul
Vv. 13- 16  The powerless, man -initiated  ministry  of  the Jewish exorcists
Vv. 17-20  The verdict :  The Gospel  triumphs over   Witchcraft 

This text not only makes entertaining reading, but it is also deeply relevant for the times in which we find ourselves.  Truly life transforming, powerful, biblical Christianity  has always  found  itself  challenged  by  imitation, Pseudo -   Christianity, which has the appearance of godliness, but denying it’s power (2 Tim 3:5). It is rotten at the core. Paul counsels Timothy to avoid such people, who are ‘always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth’. (2 Tim 3:7).  

Christianity’s greatest enemy is not Islam or Hinduism, even though these religions are contrary and opposed to the Christian faith. The greatest enemy of biblical faith is that which subtly corrupts her from the inside.   

The history of the Bible   from  the beginning  in Genesis  3, outlining the fall of man  by  the agency of Satan  who puts himself in the place of God,  to the  very end  in the book of Revelation  by the work of the anti-Christ, who puts himself in the place of the Lord Jesus Christ shows this very clearly. Satan puts himself in the place of God. The anti-Christ puts himself in the place of Christ.The true God is suppressed (Rom. 1:18ff). He is substituted for lesser gods.   This history of Israel shows this.  Apostasy from the true faith occurs time and again as Israel chooses to serve the gods of the nations. It always starts with a lack of vigilance   on the part of the shepherds of the nations.  When the prophets, priests and kings failed to watch as shepherds over Israel, Israel very quickly turned aside to other gods, making Israel in effect powerless against her enemies.

Our text reveals  these two  systems.  The Book of Acts   presents us with a fresh, dynamic, powerful, pure  Christianity, but  it also shows  the rottenness  of  a religion that claims  to be of Yahweh, but which in reality  relies on men’s  opinions and men’s  systems (such as the Pharisees promoted), and often it also relies on esoteric, occultic powers, such as  was possessed  by Elymas the  Jewish sorcerer (Acts 13:6ff)  and  the 7 sons of Sceva.

There is a fundamental difference between these two. In our chapter we find them both.  The  apostle Paul  exhibited the true power of God
11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 

It is important that we keep   what is happening here in perspective. Many modern Christian teachers expect such things to happen in our age. On the basis of such a text some modern TV evangelists invite their hearers to lay their hands on the TV to receive their healing. Others sell oil and water anointed by  some modern prophet, promising to bring healing, prosperity or whatever else is desired. The Roman Catholic church has long been in the forefront of all this, believing  that sacred sites such as Fatima  in Spain or  Lourdes in France could be visited, relics and oils  could be bought to effect healing. Many thousands of pilgrims to Lourdes have followed the instruction of Our Lady of Lourdes to "drink at the spring and wash in it". Many people supposedly have claimed to have been cured by drinking or bathing in it[1].

So, what is happening here  in  Ephesus   through the instrumentality of the apostle Paul   needs to be understood. The apostle Paul was bringing the gospel to  Ephesus,  which  in the words of  the commentator   William Larkin, was  ‘a city most hospitable to magicians, sorcerers and charlatans of all sorts. Attached to the statue of Artemis (Diana) , the city's chief goddess, were certain symbols, ‘ta Ephesia grammata’ [2], which had been turned into a magical formula [3]. According to our African way of describing  this, it was a city filled  with witchcraft. Witchcraft  is an  attempt to manipulate spiritual forces via magical incantations, ritual acts and paraphernalia in order to ward off evil and bring well-being.  Well, Ephesus was  riddled with these elements.

Do you see what the apostle Paul is up against?  He is  preaching  the gospel in an area in which Satan had a stronghold.   And  God had planned it that a church should be established in this  city. Therefore   was uniquely endowed by God for this work  with  apostolic  authority [4]. He was given the power  in word and deed  to conquer hostile territory,  doing the same work as Jesus in advancing  the kingdom of God in a midst of a troubled, confused, demon possessed world.  He did this firstly by engaging  in synagogue preaching (Acts 18:19; 19:8 ). For three months he speaks boldly in the synagogue through "reasoning and persuading".  In this he would have used formal rhetoric and dialogue,   using  arguments from the OT  promises and NT eyewitness reports of  Christ’s ministry. He  left no stone unturned  trying to persuade Jews  and Greeks (18:4).  And ultimately  his message was "repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ", “the gospel of the grace of  God" (20:21, 24).

In this difficult city it pleased God to authenticate  His Word through the use of extraordinary and unusual  miracles.   Handkerchiefs (soudaria,  facecloths  for the head cf.  Jn. 11:44; 20:7) and aprons (better "belts"--simikinthia)   touched by Paul,  brought healing and release from  demonic spirits[5]. We have seen   such  divine power manifestations  before in the  book of Acts. We see it  as the gospel advances from Jerusalem into all the world in  concentric circles,  BREAKING NEW GROUND EVERYWHERE,beginning in Jerusalem (5:16) and into Samaria (8:7) and into Macedonia (16:16-18)  and  now  here in Ephesus (19:11,12)  at the climax of Paul's missionary efforts,  after  which he makes his way  back to Jerusalem.  

PLEASE NOTE !  These things  are  miraculous  and therefore  unusual and therefore not normative. These  miracles serve  a specific purpose.  They are strategic  verifications  of the evidence of the presence of the kingdom of God – the  reign of God as proclaimed by Jesus and Paul and the apostles (19:8).   God’s  ordinary will is that people should hear  the truth and believe.  If they will not hear and believe, they will not see and believe.  Miracles  are no guarantees  that  people will believe (see Luke 16: 19-31- specifically v. 31)
So, yes these healings did occur, but to imitate them as some have  suggested, is  to reduce miracle to magic, or manipulation.  The biblical way to call upon the Lord for  healing is found in  James   5:14-15.

Vv. 13- 16  The powerless man initiated  ministry  of  the Jewish exorcists
13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, "I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims." 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, "Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?" 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
Here we have an example  of  this  Jewish group of exorcists, the 7 sons of a Jewish  high-priest  named Sceva, [in the spirit of  Elymas,  the sorcerer in Acts 9] who   tried  to invoke the Name of Jesus  over those that had evil spirits.  The   OT expressly forbade dabbling in the occult[6], but there were Jews who dabbled in the occult  (Kaballah), having been exposed to the practises of the nations around them. They thought  that by invoking a name or a formula (cf "the Ephesian grammata")  they would have power over  evil forces.  William Larkin  writes:
The sons' syncretistic appropriation follows the time-honored practice of piling name upon powerful name so as to create incantations strong enough to require spirits to do one's bidding... The name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches is these men's newest and most potent "power name" [7](cf.Eph.  1:21).

But what happens now  would be funny if it were not so serious. The evil spirit knows  Jesus  and Paul[8], but the evil spirit  does not recognize the authority of these 7 sons, and  from the mouth of a demon we learn the valuable lesson that Jesus will not allow His name to be reduced to a magical formula or to be taken in vain  (Ex. 20:7). Only those  with a personal relationship with Christ and endowed with His authority  can be used in the act of God  driving  out demons.
And so the evil spirit overpowers them (Gr. ephallomai-  to leap  upon).  They receive such a beating that they barely escape with their lives.

Vv. 17-20  The Gospel  overpowers   Witchcraft 
17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. 18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.

True  gospel power  versus false gospel manipulation, and the true gospel wins!  The result is that fear  fell upon  all who heard about this  and the  Name of Jesus was  magnified.Understanding now that Jesus' name is not to be manipulated, people  are now in a  better position to hear the  heart of Paul’s message : Repent and believe the gospel  of Jesus Christ!  This is indeed what we see here! Many that were now believers came "confessing and divulging their practises".  The culture of magic arts, instructed by their costly books (worth 50 000  pieces of silver)   burns in the fire!  Repentance is costly. Good for them!  They are removing any temptation to go back to the old life.  Mixing the pure faith as it is in Jesus with false religion, the occult or money, education, science, technology   is dangerous. Jesus cannot be mixed with these things. He must stand over and apart from these things.   
The final verse in v. 20 affirms the  triumph of the  gospel over  fake religion:  “The word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”  Amen.

[2]  Ephesia Grammata (Greek: Ἐφέσια Γράμματα, "Ephesian words") are Ancient Greek magical formulas attested from the 5th or 4th century BC. Their name derives from their being inscribed on the cult image of Artemis in Ephesus.  Similar to the mantras of Buddhism and Hinduism, they were "meaningless words" (ἄσημα ὀνόματα) potent to protect those who could speak them correctly, their power residing in their sound, so that they were ineffective if mispronounced. Plutarch (Quaest. Conv. 706D) reports that the Magi instructed victims of demonic possession to recite the Ephesia Grammata.
[4] This was part of his credentials as an apostle (Rom. 15:19; 2 Cor. 12:12; Gal. 3:5).
[5]  See also Lk 8:43-48; Acts 5:15
[6] Lev 20:6, 27; Deut. 18:10-11
[8] compare Lk 4:34, 41; 8:28